Yesterday was Karl Malone 's birthday. The Mailman, among his many honorifics, is the leading scorer in Utah Jazz franchise history. But I think we take a lot of what he did for granted. He wasn't just a scorer. He played defense, he got key rebounds, he made necessary passes, and basically drew all the aggro from the other team. And even though he routinely faced double and triple teams, was still capable of scoring over them. And decades after he moved on from being a player we have forgotten just how crazy good he was. But more than that, we often brush over the fact that, hey, that dude put the entire team on his back for years, and led our squad to countless post season series wins.
John Stockton is known as the floor general, the guy with the clutch ability, and the dude who made "the shot", the single best moment in franchise history. Jeff Hornacek was the long needed third guy who could do a lot of everything and turned the team from being a tough out in the playoffs to being a championship contender. And yes, Jerry Sloan gets his due too -- as a brilliant man who was more humble than anyone else I have ever met.
But I think we really forgot how good Karl was. With no Karl, we're not even close enough to make the playoffs, let alone be there to take a shot to go to the NBA Finals. Without Karl we're in a situation where adding Jeff Hornacek, while nice, does little to change the history of the franchise.
Karl was a leader, and while he wasn't the best speaker, he worked really hard. And he was that tank for our squad. He was a larger than life, tapping on TV cameras after scoring, flexing after dunks, and pumping up the crowd with energy. He also worked on his game, learning to make all those free throws that he was so damn good at earning. And he became that All-World talent that could lead a team to the biggest shows.
Sure, he needed Stock to get him the ball, and Stock was a more consistent, and clutch performer. But it's a blowout loss some nights without Karl's offense keeping the team in there.
Yesterday on NBA TV they played three of his games. I tried to record all of them -- but they cut one in half for the Jeremy Lin press conference (thanks Lakers!). The first game was against the Showtime / Magic Johnson / Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Lakers. This was a game from when I first started to be a Jazz fan. In fact, I had only recently become a Jazz fan a few months before in the playoffs. It was a great trip down memory lane for me and it showed me the team I first fell in love with. There was talent, but what I really enjoyed was the system. Guys knew their roles, and played off of John and Karl. And back then you knew that John and Karl were going to be special.
The second game was against the San Antonio Spurs, and showed off John's best assisting night of his career. John got the stats in that game, 28 assists, but the fact that Karl was so efficient some of those assists we purely academic, instead of inventive. That's not taking anything away from John -- but he's not getting 28 assists by passing the ball to Thurl Bailey all night.
And we,, the last game was the bitter-sweet game where Karl Malone single-handedly beat the Chicago Bulls by scoring 39 points against one of the best defensive teams in the history of the game, going head to head against a multiple-time Defensive player of the year award winner in Dennis Rodman.
We saw the beginning of the rise of the Jazz, the Jazz dominating another Western Conference playoff team, and then the Jazz beating a 'dynasty' NBA franchise at their peak, on their home court, in a close out game. Stockton is clutch because he wins games. Malone is so clutch that he keeps the season itself from ending. And you need both.
What do we have right now? The best I can think of (and I'm going to release this post tomorrow) is that we have (at worst) the next Antoine Carr in Enes Kanter, and maybe the next Bryon Russell in Rodney Hood. That's not a championship caliber team.
When I reduce those Finals Jazz teams down to their components I see that Karl was probably the least replaceable guy out there. Which is funny, because he was suspended for some games during that stretch of greatness and the team won without him because they were so good. But over the long haul, without him they were like a solar system without a sun. Just re-watch that Bulls game and see where the Jazz try to get points from when Karl was on the bench -- to our second year, back up shooting guard Shandon Anderson. In the post.
As I've poured over a lot of stats over the last decade the one thing that I see this current Jazz team missing is still that main piece -- a legit, top level scorer. A guy who will score 40 points against the best defense in the league because the rest of his team can't buy a bucket. The teams that win in the playoffs have a guy (or two) who can just take over games. Guys who want to take over games. And guys who will take the blame if they lose.
Karl Malone was a player like that, and that is another reason why he was so great.
I see the potential for greatness on our club, but I have yet to see that level of greatness. Derrick Favors is quiet and sometimes forgets how talented he is out there on the court. Alec Burks can score with ease, but I don't know if he is destroyed by losing games. Enes Kanter is demonstrative and powerful, but a bull turned ox by his own masters. Gordon Hayward has that drive, and while it is a wing players league, in four seasons I have seen him take control only once -- against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Trey Burke is massively competitive as well, but may not have the raw athleticism to overcome his limitations. Isiah Thomas was a guy who did, but I don't see a lot of Isiah in Trey right now. And then there's Dante Exum -- who, if anything, looks to be our next point guard who passes the ball off too much.
You can build a team to be very good, but to be great you need that star player. You need that offensive player who is an absolute burden to game plan for. You need a guy who wants the ball, and will carry a team.
I hope one of our younger guys can be that player. I really hope so. Because watching Karl Malone go to work in those three games yesterday was a sight for sore eyes. He wasn't a pretender like Carlos Boozer, or a guy who did a bunch of pretty moves to avoid contact like Al Jefferson. He played basketball like he was going to die at the end of each game. And he played to win.
I remember years ago when he scored 50 points against the Seattle Supersonics (Horace Grant and Vin Baker) in the first round of the playoffs. The game was already won, by the third quarter, and Karl had a huge night. Horace Grant asked him to ease up a bit. Karl said "no, this is Utah." He wanted to kill it out there, and embarrass the other team, for the adulation of the Jazz fans. And he had the ability to do just that. I remember when he scored 56 against the Golden State Warriors and injured the guys defending him -- Donyell Marshall was out for the season after that game. You can be a leader, a lead scorer without trying to destroy your opponents mentally and physically.
But I do love some of Karl's nastiness. He was the best player on the court, knew it, told you about it, dunked on you, flexed, and then did something for the cameras. And that's the Jazz basketball I grew up with. Not this timid, let's not be loud, form of the game where we spend 18 seconds of the clock trying to get a jumper from 20 feet. Execution is great. Demolition is better.
And I want the Jazz to start demolishing teams again. And it's going to take a lead scorer to do that. Today we have guys like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook taking games over and winning it by themselves. James Harden too. Dwyane Wade won a title all by himself because he took the will to win from the other team. You don't have to be a back to the basket big to be a big time scorer anymore. And with our new offense, that's probably going to be the case for us as well.
However, at the end of the day we still need a great scorer. Someone who is going to take the blame for losses, and take the responsibility to carry the team to wins. I believe Dennis Lindsey is a wizard.
But this party needs a tank too. NBA TV showed me that Karl was still under appreciated -- even by us, his most ardent supporters. And they also showed me that no matter how good our nucleus can be, not having a prime time player is going to hold us back.
So it's really good that our front office has finally put all the eggs in the development basket. These are exciting times for the Jazz and Jazz fans.